December 29th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World."
By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN
The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.
To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.
First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.
The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.
Actually, that's not in the Bible
Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?
Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.
This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?
My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?
Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written - that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John - we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.
My Take: Yes, the Bible really condemns homosexuality
Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.
The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.
Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?
The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.
The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.
The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.
It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.
The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.
It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.
One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.
The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.
That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
It amazes me that the 'christians', who have 'borrowed' THE TRUTH to attempt to legitimize their 'practices', have the audacity to dispute, dispell, and attempt 'retell' the ROOT of the story from where they 'draw from'... I do not know how long this man has been in the 'church' but clearly, has not studied, nor does he have a clue... YES, YHVH EL SHADAI!!! IS JEALOUS, VENGEFUL, JUDGMENTAL, AND WILL SPARE NO END TO HIS WRATH... Just as HE IS COMPASSIONATE, MERCIFUL, GRACIOUS, AND JUST!!! 'Christians' have held on toooo long to their Santa Claus story, so much, that they believe that YHVH EL SHADAI!!! will not DO WHAT HE HAS SAID HE WILL DO... just rain down blessings, good tidings, money, cars, houses, and great vacations... It is not bad enough that the FAKE 'holy men' have the nerve to say these things, BUT THERE ARE MILLIONS UP ON MILLIONS WHO BELIEVE IT... So as it is now, it will be to come, THESE SAME FAKE 'holy men' WILL BE PRESIDING OVER THE SAME CONGREGATIONS, BUT THE LOCATION WILL BE IN HELL...
Kev, by joe you've got it so right. YHWH will not tolerate any more of this idolatry of images of men, or women, and statues, and then calling them heavenly deities, lord or god, God and Lord. In Deut.4 YHWH tells us not to liken anything of the heaven for we do not have a clue as to what they, or the spirits look like, but we did it anyway. And, Moses warned us of the future generations doing this in the 'latter days' in Deut. 32v17, letting us know that all religions are not of YHWH, and are pagan. This is why He's jealous, we are worshiping false idols, and giving them His praise. For as He says in Zech. 14v9, He is One, and no one is with Him. As He explains that clearly to us in Isaiah 44v24, He did all of this alone, so we should be giving the praise to YHWH. The only son that He's ever mentioned is in Exodus 4v22,23, and it's 'Israel" the chosen people, who too, the descendants today are walking in darkness, following these religions, and idols, and we wonder why we are under the wrath, and nothing's been peaceful for over 2000 years, there is even more in difference, war, hate, poverty and greed, and until we return to YHWH, as He asked of us in Malachi 3v7, it will get worst, as told to us in Jeremiah 25, go figure.
Cooper, Linda, Eric, For one, the prophet Isaiah was in the 8th century, and the only ones who were experiencing the dark ages were europeans, in the roman ages, many centuries later, not in the days of Isaiah, which were at the times of the true civilizations, and unfortunately they later lost straying away from the Father YHWH, know your history coop. I suppose David, and Solomon his son are not of our history what say you? Linda, and Eric, thank you so much for both of your posts, YHWH the Creator Blesses us, and Praise unto YHWH the King, and our Only Savior, and Redeemer as taught to us in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, There is no one else as said in Isaiah 43v11, and in 43v13, no man can be delivered from His hands. YHWH Bless. To add, the only son, and FIRSTBORN is said by YHWH it is 'ISRAEL' the chosen people. Learn the truth from Gen.-Malachi.
I'd like comment on the article from John Shelby Spong. The only misconceptions come from not having enough faith in our God, that he can make sure his children can recall very accurately for hundreds of years. Today we have people who have photographic memories, which in itself is quite amazing..My belief is those in the early Biblical days had just that, photographic minds for the purpose of forwarding creation and correct knowledge to future generations..My belief in our Creator and his abilities to fulfill his purpose is incomprehensible to my mind, but my Faith is that he knows what he's doing. Give our Creator, God of all existence, credit for being the most intelligent designer from Eternity to Eternity..It seems to me Mr. Spong, that you don't have enough Faith in your Father in Heaven. Without the Faith in Our Father in Heaven, I would sorely be a person in despair..I am comforted in His knowledge and in His capability,for He has given us our knowledge and our very existence. God Bless Our Nation Again, Please
Mr. Spong, how is then that in Isaiah 40:22 it is stated that the shape of the Earth is circular, not flat, which was the belief early on? It wasn't untill 200 hundred years later that Greek philosophers came to the probable conclusion that the earth was circular and it wasnt untill the 20th century that we were able to take a shuttle up to actually see this. The point is that the Bible was written by men but God's Holy Spirit guided them to write His words. Its just one piece of evidence that the Bible is historiacaly acurate and ahead of itself simply because its God's word.
Eric go to bed lol.....the bible is not historically accurate hell its not even accurate...its borrowed stories fom earlier times!!!......like the article stated if you take the book literal like it opens up a whole can of nasty words.....scince its so literal im sure you live by every damn word..............smh religious nuts you gotta believe it......and by the way im sre if the bible had said he earth was round those dark age idioats would have made it law!!! way back then
Well, since CNN took away the story on evolution... The NASA LRO has discovered that cosmic rays can promote the formation of pre-biotic organic molecules, and have done so on the moon. If it happened there, in a horribly harsh environment – heat/cold, radiation and near-vacuum – then life is likely just about everywhere in the cosmos, no spo.oky-man-in-the-sky needed.
AGuest9, So tell me where did the rays originally come from, and then the molecules come from originally, and no there is not a man in the sky, but there is a higher being,no one said it was a man persay. It is the Spiritual being, that is within all things, and creatures around us, and of ourselves, and others as well. The connection of 'Life' as stated by Moses to follow in order to prolong our lives with goodness in Deuteronomy 32v45-47, of the law of the Higher Creator YHWH, for us to live righteously, and with peace..
That's still a long way from producing intelligent life my friend. Have you ever stuied the DNA, you maybe in for a suprise just how complicated life is.
Prayer is delusional.
Mr Sprong posits as fact a higher-critical methodology of Scriptural interpretation that is not, in actuality, based on fact in the least. I respect his right to advance his views, but he would better serve his readers by allowing that his take on the Bible is highly theoretical and not embraced by all scholars. In truth, his assertions in this article place him outside the pale of orthodoxy, and while this former Epsicopal bishop may well be devout, what he espouses is not Christian in the least. That is perhaps the most poignant aspect to the article – the tragic decline among church leaders of belief in an Almighty God and and the veracity of His Word.
Well said Paul. There certainly seems to be a decline for the love of God and his word among most churches. Jesus of course said that would happen. He also said his true disciples would be identified by the “love they had among themselves.” Don’t see that among main stream religion either. On the other hand Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long record of displaying love, even dying to protect their brothers. Check out the atrocities in Rawanda between the Hutu and Tutsi in the 70’s and 80’s. Very revealing.
Ever play the telephone game when you were younger? Same concept. Stories get passed down and passed down until the actual story itself has changed into a epic tale. To take the Bible word for word is foulishness. Is there some historical fact located in the bible? Yes, however what better way to pass down events that happened. Am I saying not to believe in God? No, I actually believe in a higher power myself. Is it God? Maybe. But I can' t allow myself to believe that the Alpha and Omega portrayed in the New Testiment is the same as the one in the Old. What kind of merciful God would contradict himself saying "Do not commit murder" but then turn around and want people killed simply for disobeying their parents? The Bible is a book of stories comprised by an Emperor who decided on what books should be in the Bible and what shouldn't. Why would you allow someone to manipulate your mind into believing what you should and shouldn't believe in?
Comparing the transmission of the Bible to a child's game of "Telephone, " is a long since well refuted myth. Critics for years tried to make that claim with the Old Testament, however with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, which were dated to be more than a thousand years older than the current oldest manuscripts of the OT, they matched up verbatim with what we currently had (with the exceptions of a few spelling and punctuation differences). This was evidence that over that thousand year block of time the transmission of the OT had remained accurate and true. If you do a study on the great links the Jews had to go through in order just to make copies of the holy scriptures and you will have no doubt why. That's evidence that the Old Testament remained unchanged for the last 2,200 years. Moses lived around another 2,200 years before that. Historically whenever an endeavor is started it does its best at the beginning and gets worse down towards the end. So if the Jewish people kept the scriptures that accurate the last half of the time, I think we can be pretty confident that it was kept accurate for the first half as well. Jesus recognized the OT cannon in Luke 24:44 and also references it when he mentions the very first martyr (Able) and the very last martyr (Zachariah) in Luke 11:51.
The New Testament transmission is often compared to that Telephone game. However if it is, it is as if the rules has been changes so that the last child in the line has the right to go and talk directly to the first and get the accurate message. A more accurate analogy would be if you gave a message to four friends who in turn each gave copies of that message to 5,300 other people who made copies all within 65 years of that very first message. Now someone may be able to change the story in a few of those copies but no way they could do all of them that were scattered across the region of the time. If I thought for a second that I might have a bad copy, I could go and compare it with all 5,300 copies. That's a fact. We have more than 5,300 manuscript Greek copies of the NT that date to within 65 years of the actual events. But besides that we also have 10,000 Latin copies, 9,300 other copies, and more that 24,000 partial copies of manuscripts all which date to that first century. All of which, with the exception of spelling and punctuation and some word omissions, accurately match up to what we have as the NT today. Compare that to other ancient texts that we seem to have no problems with, Homer of Iliad only has 643 copies, the earliest of which is 5 centuries after the fact. Or Plato which only has 7 copies, the earliest of which is 1,200 years after the fact. Or Aristotle which only has 49 copies and the earliest is 1,400 years after the fact.
The point here of course is that if there is any doubt as to the accuracy of the transmission of the Bible we can rest assured that it has been very well preserved and passed down to us today.
When given the opportunity, why tear each other apart?
Please be cognizant of the precedents being set..not only for yourself but for the whole of humanity
Romans 12:1-2 (The Message) So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your eydrveay, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. -Great schtuff!!
In the translation I use it says "quit being fashioned after this system of things". However it appears the religions of the day embrace this system with out regard to God's Word. They say they are liberated, but really they are enslaved to the God of this system.
Religion is divisive and out dated. To survive humanity must grow up. Childesh narratives based on religion are the single most destructive forces in the modern world, and, if left unchecked, will kill us all. It's time to be responsible. Time to be an adult. Its finally time to grow up.
Not all religion. I agree most is very detructive and responsible for most wars. This is a misrepresentation of God. So what do you think God is going to do about those who misrepresent him? Well put it this way, you would not want to be them.
There is a true Christain Religion that does love their brothers and have proved it even at risk of their lives. When they call on your door listen to them.
"Religion is divisive and out dated."
Talk about divisive, I don't get to go to any of my family gatherings and have spoken to my mother four times in 12 years because I got a divorce and chose not to repent because the divorce was the best thing I had ever done, and 12 years later I still feel that way. The witnesses are more divisive than any other religion I know of because they want you to live apart from the world like a new class of human. There's the "worldly" people out there and the "righteous and clean" people that will inherit the earth, along with the homes they are casing for future post-armegeddon occupacy.
And what Christian denomination would that be? Christianity is just that, Christianity. And if I recall, there are Christian extremests out there. Look at the Crusades. Throughout history there are eras of Christian extremism. People being persecuted because of their beliefs. It even happened here in America, Salem ring a bell? It is still happening when the Westboro Baptist Chruch intrudes on a military funeral to blast their anti-gay bs.
I will let you answer that. Jesus spent his life preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom. His disciples carried on that work and still do today. So who calls on your door telling you about the Kingdom of God? Not too hard to answer.
True Christians are prepared to die for their brothers, not kill them. Even to love their enemies. So crusaders are not true Christians. True Christians are non-violent and passive like their forerunner Jesus Christ.
Greg, I tried to post to you on the controversial scriptures in the NT, that does not fulfill the OT, but it too was not allowed to post. So, I will just say that Peter said the law is wrath, and in Deut.32v45-47, YHWH says that the law is our life, so choose life, and this He has never changed, as YHWH teaches us that He does not change in Malachi 3v6, so that we are not consumed by lies.
kenny, By Joe you got it, elementary my dear kenny, you have hit the nail straight upon its head, and told us the exact truth of this mayhem we have today, and for centuries here on this earth, the control of religion and its idolatry. Its never done any good in all the 2000 years its been on this planet, and people are only divided, but they truly need to connect, and all come together with spirituality, and of all the nature, and love that's around us, and share it among each and everyone, I mean everyone. Then we will see progress an upgrade on life.
"Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?" – The author only tried to see the historical authenticity of the message of Prophet Abraham, Prophet Moses and Prophet Jesus (May Peace Be Upon all of them). If only he went a little further and analyzed the historical authenticity of the message of Prophet Muhammad(Peace Be Upon Him), The Qur'an – he would have been amazed. I kid you not – see it for yourself how the Qur'an was preserved Orally as well as in Writing from the time of its revelation.
Just Call, 1-773-874-0325, for any questions, any one may have. Guaranteed historical facts will be proven.
Paul, I tried to post this truth to you but it was not allowed of the contradictions from the OT to the NT, there are so many, but one is timoty 4v4, that every creature is good to eat, but in Genesis 7v2,3, and Deut. 14, also, Leviticus 11, this is not true, we must eat clean it is our life, and the law has not changed from this of YHWH. Yes some passages are complimentary, but many are not, and no I do not object to others using what is comfortable to them, but for myself I prefer to use that which is not profane to YHWH, Ezekiel 39v7, and Ezekiel 36v22,23. Oh, and YHWH is pronounced YAH, or Yod, He, Wav, He.
The secret things that belong to YHWH the Creator, in Deuteronomy 29v29, is His.
I am not sure why you think I should not use Jehovah as the name of the creator?
YHWH is hebrew and only contains the consonants, when spoken the reader uses vowels to pronounce the name correctly. So which vowels do you use to vocalise the name.
It is well recognised that Jehovah is an acceptable form for the creator, why do you object to that?
Could you mention some of the changes to YHWH that the NT has made so I can check this out. I read both the Hebrew scriptures and Greek and have found them a compliment of each other.
Why bother "reclaiming" the bible at all? (some of us never disclaimed it in the first place). You just made it sound like a purposeless act of fiction. Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein fulfilled for me the "ultimate meaning" you give the bible-why not reclaim them for humanity and stop wasting your time with such an obvious load of historical errors?
Of course it has historical errors. The stories passed down are thousands of years old; most of the stories weren't even writen down for generations. Does it mean that it is totally 100% false? No. There are factual stories in the Bible, now whether or not they happened the EXACT way it was writen is yet to be found. For example, the story of Noah. Is it possibly true that someone named Noah built a ship because there was a flood coming? Sure. Is it possible that he also took animals upon the ship? Sure. Was it EVERY animal in the world? Or was it possibly every animal in the world that they knew of? I am thinking the latter of the two. Did the WHOLE world flood, or just the whole world as they knew it? I am thinking the latter of the two. Remember, a lot of the stories in the Bible are stories before they knew about a lot of the world. Before they knew about the America's, before there was an England, or knew about the Arctic, or Austrailia, etc... To them, the "world" was the world they knew of.
Thank you! I wish more people would express both their love of the Bible and what it represents and teaches together with a contemporary understanding of how it was written, and it role in history.
Mr Spong is wrong.
When a man picks and chooses what he wants to believe from the Bible then he creates his own God to believe in as well
Paul, I know you only ask one question but...It is not religion it is the truth I do not read the NT, don't get me wrong I did read it and what I found was many changes as to what the Creator YHWH says, for He changes not, in Malachi 3v6. And no I do not say jehova, this is not His name and neither is lord Lord or God, or yehwah, and He does not have a son named jesus but His son and firstborn is 'Israel' the chosen people, in Exodus 4v22,23, who everyone knows was exiled the10 tribes punished for their transgressions against YHWH scattered to the four corners of the earth in Deut.30 of the curse and Deut.28v15-68 if one does not fit these scriptures then you are not the chosen Hebrew Israelis. As I told one other person in the book of Exodus the term Hebrew is used often, and then the transliteration of Jew comes in later books but Js were not in existence until the 1500s, and the Hebrews were always called this until after 161bce they were not talked about anymore around the time the jewish roman writers began. Then in 586bce Hebrews were all captive Daniel Ezra Zerrubabbal during the Babylonian conquest of king Neb. until the defeat from Cyrus the Great the Persian, history, so I am in the truth of this history. For the Solomon of Judah who is Hebrew his temple was not in 70AD it was much earlier than that yet they only talk about Herod a Jew, who had only rebuilt on Solomon's temple. YHWH the Strong One is the spirituality of righteousness and the movement is called YHWH(Lord) Our Righteousness in Jeremiah 23v1-8, of the seed of David and the Branch is what is the truth. All scriptures say David or the seed of David Isaiah 49,53,9 these are speaking to the seed of David who was born in Bethleham out of the root of Jessie to serve YHWH will be the seed of David upon the throne is what is said all through the so called OT, but is really called the book of remembrance in Malachi 3v16. YHWH tells us all through Deut. not to change nothing of His law, but in the Nt they did anyway. And no one can die for anyone's sins in Ezekiel 14v14, and YHWH is our Only Savior and Redeemer in Isaiah 49v26 and Isaiah 60v16 and many others as in isaiah 44v22 He says to return to Him for He has forgiven all of our sins and will not remember them just come back unto Him. Then He tells us not to compare or liken Him to no one in Isaiah 40v18 but we did over in the nt. It so much more truth read Genesis – Malachi.
lol, No I said the 'seed' of David who was a child born in Bethlehem, and who was chosen by YHWH with His prophet Samuel to appoint David to work, and serve the most high the Creator YHWH. All written in 1 Samuel 16,and 17, the boy was chosen, and proved to YHWH down the years that he was so dedicated to YHWH our Creator for who do you think wrote most of Psalms?, it was David. Therefore YHWH has chosen Daivid's 'seed' of the covenant of the chosen people and the forefathers Abraham, Issac and Jacob, to rule, to govern on the throne as prophesied for the future new kingdom, in Jeremiah 23v1-8, and Jeremiah 33v14-26, and it will all be under the new covenant that is to come, also prophesied for the future in Jeremiah 31v31-40, and it will be called YHWH(Lord) Our Righteousness. The Truth. Lol to you too, but read Genesis – Malachi for the real new kingdom of YHWH a great King, as He tells us He is in Malachi 1v14, and this He truly is to us.